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Friday, October 17, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Restaurant Review

Take your pick from the sushi-go-round

Seattle Times restaurant critic

Sushi Land


Seattle: 803 Fifth Ave. N.; 206-267-7621. Bellevue: 138 107th Ave. N.E.; 425-455-2793.

Japanese

$

**

Web site: www.sushilandusa.com.

Reservations: not accepted.

Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. daily.

Prices: $1-$3 per plate.

Wine list: None available, but there's red or white by the glass, bottled beer and sake.

Sound: Moderate. And, yes, that's Top 40 radio on the sound system.

Parking: Seattle: complimentary parking in pay lot across the street. Bellevue: small private lot.

Credit cards: MC, V / no smoking / no obstacles to access.

Hi. My name is Nancy and I'm addicted to sushi. And that, as those of you who suffer from the same affliction will attest, is a serious problem. One solved swiftly and cheaply at Sushi Land, which uses a rotating conveyor belt to tempt the tastebuds and deliver the goods.

Sushi Land is a corporate concern with four U.S. outlets: one in Bellevue (a small, rather shopworn restaurant open since 1999); a bigger, better operation near Seattle Center (open since June); and two in Oregon. A third Washington location is set to open next week in Vancouver, Clark County. More than 100 stores in Japan are known by the chain's official name, Marinepolis Sushi Land (Marinepolis/metropolis, get it? Me neither).

Forewarned is forearmed: Sushi Land is devoid of the artistry, excellence and personal service that comes from placing oneself before a maestro who has spent years mastering his task. That said, this kid-in-a-candy-store construct is just the ticket for sushi fans looking for a quick fix.

Seated around a rotating conveyor belt, you can stuff yourself silly seven days a week at lunch, dinner or hours in-between. While some may (rightfully) roll their eyes at the no-frills décor, rice-spewing machinery and eat-it-and-beat-it pace, others may (just as rightfully) view Sushi Land as Disneyland's fishified equivalent.

Sushi chefs, and I use that term loosely, are stationed behind counter and conveyor, slapping together pre-cut fish with machine-formed pads of rice, or fashioning maki — including such big sellers as California and spider rolls — in mass quantities.

Their handiwork is transferred to color-coded plates (green $1, orange $1.50, blue $2, purple $3) and sent round and round till someone snags it.

As a Sushi Lander, it's your job to examine the merchandise as it passes — a once-around should give you the lay of the land. Then it's time to get snacking and start stacking!

As is traditional, the sushi comes in pairs. Neophytes can turn to a color-photo cheat sheet to see what's what. The smart money keeps an eye on the sushi stations for coming attractions and an ear out for deep-frying noises emanating from the kitchen: These are known to produce fish balls and fried squid. Try it, you'll like it.

What else is good? Plenty. And with few exceptions, everything is good enough.

Try the House Special Roll ($1). Pop one of these rice-y rounds in your mouth, close your eyes and taste the Japanese version of a tuna-salad sandwich, starring "tunasara" (that's canned tuna, folks, with mayo) and sweet omelet (standing in for the Wonder Bread). I was impressed with the salmon ($1.50), whether raw, fried in a salmon-skin roll or seared to medium-rare with a propane torch. Saba (mackerel, $1), another favorite, comes in big buttery slabs, light on the rice-wine-vinegar marinade.

Blue-plate specialties ($2) include ama-ebi, a double-dose of small, raw, sweet shrimp; a "spicy tuna roll" (accent on the spicy); and negitoro, chopped tuna belly with dried toasted seaweed wrapped around it, gunkan-style.

Scaredy-cats take note: Half of Sushi Land's offerings do not involve raw fish. There's sushi made with shrimp salad, with soybeans and seaweed, cooked octopus, smoked squid, broiled eel, tamago (sweet omelet) and inari (fried bean curd, sweetened and stuffed with rice). Don't miss the crunchy veggie roll with lettuce, cucumber, avocado and burdock root, but don't expect much from the shrimp tempura roll and its nigiri version: bland in Bellevue, gummy on Queen Anne.

Condiments, including weak wasabi, tare (the sticky sauce often brushed on broiled eel), soy sauce and pickled ginger, are found in containers poised around the counter. Help yourself. And if you don't see what you like sushi-wise (say, sea urchin or salmon roe), don't hesitate to hail a roving server or a busy sushi man and speak up.

Soft drinks come in jumbo-sized tumblers ($1), and you can score a Sapporo or sake ($3 each) if so inclined. Order these, as well as hot tea or miso soup (more than serviceable at $1) from your server. Those at the Seattle branch should be commended for their swift response and keen eye for keeping things tidy. Bellevue's team — clearly overworked and understaffed — could use a good manager to help better their less-fortunate situation.

To maintain quality control, the Queen Anne Sushi Land depends on a high-tech "Freshness Management System": computer chips embedded in the plates and an automatic outta-here lever that leaps into action once the plate reaches its health-department-approved 30-minute time limit. In Bellevue, it's all about bar codes, beepers and manual removal, which might explain how, on one particularly busy evening, one particularly ugly sushi roll made the rounds far longer than it should have.

Eat till you're satisfied, call for the check and pay up front. With plates stacked 10-deep — the average per-person count by my unofficial survey — even a purple-plated uni eater like me will be hard-pressed to rack up a $15 tab.

As anyone who's seen me standing at the sushi counter at my local supermarket will tell you, I'm no sushi snob. Nor am I rich. And ever since my sushi-loving kid learned to belly up to the sushi bar and say "Hold the wasabi," I've learned to embrace a sushi bargain when I see one. What with free parking and quick takeout, this is one you've got to see.

Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838 or nleson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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